Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth. Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter. Ye have condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you.
Depriving workers of their rightful wages
The Old Testament condemns the mistreatment of workers:
Leviticus 19:13 “Thou shalt not defraud thy neighbour, neither rob him: the wages of him that is hired shall not abide with thee all night until the morning.”
Deuteronomy 24:14–15 “Thou shalt not oppress an hired servant that is poor and needy, whether he be of thy brethren, or of thy strangers that are in thy land within thy gates: At his day thou shalt give him his hire, neither shall the sun go down upon it; for he is poor, and setteth his heart upon it: lest he cry against thee unto the LORD, and it be sin unto thee.”
Proverbs 3:27–28 “Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, When it is in the power of thine hand to do it. Say not unto thy neighbour, Go, and come again, and tomorrow I will give; When thou hast it by thee.”
This would have been taught in their churches, and also to them as children. But some were ignoring those commands.
The rich would not have been hurt by paying the wages. This was not a mandated rate, the rich set their own pay rate and were still not paying. This could have been viewed differently had their government mandated a minimum wage they could not afford. I have been on minimum wage and hoped for more. I have paid out minimum wage and struggled to. They had plenty from which to pay! And wouldn’t.
The workers, who lived from day to day and from hand to mouth, were hurt tremendously by not getting paid. James depicts the seriousness of the matter in terms of two cries going up to God:
- The first is the cry of the unpaid wages. James pictures the money sitting there in the bank and crying out to because it has not been sent to the workers. That seems silly, money crying. Perhaps James is trying to show how silly they’re holding back the pay is.
- The second is the cry of the workers themselves. It is the cry of anguish, as they sit down with their families to eat a crust of bread or nothing at all when they could have been eating a decent meal. Nothing plays on the emotions better than a family, with children, going without food.
James then reminds them that these cries do not go unnoticed. They are heard by ‘the Lord of Sabaoth’. The Bible uses many names for God. He is such a glorious being that no one name can do justice to him. The name James uses here means ‘Lord of hosts’. It tells us that God is surrounded by hosts of angelic beings and that he is greater than all of them. He is their Lord.
The God who is greater than all the hosts of heaven is certainly great enough to mete out justice to the cruel wealthy who inflict such pain and misery on their workers!
This leads us to the third misuse of wealth: hoarding, holding back wages, and…
Living in luxury and self-indulgence
Now there is nothing wrong with living in luxury when done honestly. Not too many years ago “indoor plumbing” was a great luxury! Perhaps a better way to put James’ tone here is not so much “living in luxury” as “wallowing in luxury”.
I think of the Rich Man in Luke. Here fared sumptuously every day. While poor Lazarus laid at his gate full of sores wanting just the crumbs from his table. He could have easily fed Lazarus a meal.
Here James is talking about people who use their wealth to pamper themselves while needs are on every hand. Needs that could be easily alleviated by some generosity. But these people are oblivious to their needs. Thinking only of themselves and their comfort, they go on buying and buying.
James has a devastating picture for them. “Ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter.” They are fattening themselves for God’s judgment. A calf eats and eats without realizing that it is fattening itself for the day of slaughter. These wealthy are misusing their wealth and gorging themselves without realizing that there is ‘a day of slaughter’ coming.
They’ve hoarded, withheld pay from the poor, self-indulged instead of helping the poor, and finally…
Murdering the innocent
James tells them they have condemned and killed the just! We shouldn’t picture any of James’s readers going out with swords to murder. James has something far more subtle in mind but just as deadly!
James is referring to judicial “murder”. Taking away the means of making a living. The landowners controlled the courts. The poor without land could not oppose them. They had no way to use the system. So they were helpless. “…and he doth not resist you.” James says by taking away their ability to earn a living you are murdering these just people.
James’s words about murdering the just who are not able to resist make me think about Jesus. Although He was just in every way, He was murdered. And although He had the power to resist, He opened not His mouth. He willingly submitted to unjust treatment so He could provide eternal salvation for sinners.
If we ever conduct business in a “shark”-like way, we will be doing just what James is warning against here. If the only way to the top is to step over someone else, I don’t want to be at the top. If the only way you can do business is by mistreating others, go out of business.
Pastor Chance Strickland
Harpeth Baptist Church
Kingston Springs, TN